Politics and compromise
It is interesting to look back at the 1995 movie “The American President”. In that movie, Michael Douglas, who plays the president, strikes a deal with Annette Bening, who is a lobbyist for an environmental group and becomes his “girlfriend”. When he sees the opportunity to cut a deal with members of Congress to get a gun control bill passed, he renegs on his deal with Ms. Bening.
She accuses him of betraying his ideals for a weak bill, and walks out on him. She wanted him to stand up for his liberal ideals. He however saw an opportunity to do something, even though it was far from what he wanted. But at least this would have represented a major breakthrough, and perhaps over time lead to stronger amendments. These are the essence of politics and policy making: compromise and incremental steps.
The character of Juan Peron in the movie “Evita” described this well: “Politics is the art of the possible”.
But as we expect in Hollywood movies, the president reversed this course, canceled the deal, and publicly made the case for the tough measures he preferred on gun control and the environment. He won his girl back and the Liberals in the audience applauded loudly.
If the movie had continued to the election, it would have shown his defeat, if it were to have become realistic. The overwhelming majority of American voters hover around the political center. Sometimes they shift a little to the left of center, sometimes a little to the right. The difference between the average Republican voter and the average Democrat voter likely is not great. However, both parties have their extremists who want no part of any compromise. Both extremes are arrogant and believe they alone know what is best for the country and the people.
Whenever one party is taken over by its extremists, that party generally does miserably in the following election, and the extremists are banished to the wilderness till they regroup and fight for control once more. The Democrats did poorly in last November’s election because of the economy and the belief that they were out of sync with the American voter. The Democrats and the President were perceived as having shifted too far left.
In an interview published in the New York Times on January 7, Robert Reich, the Labor Secretary in the Clinton Government, lamented that President Obama did not stick with his liberal ideals and did not confront the Republicans more aggressively. The article commented: “Mr. Reich is one of several prominent liberal economists who despair of what they say is this president’s political caution, and his unwillingness to duel with an emboldened Republican Party.”
Reich also was critical of President Clinton who moved quickly to the center in the aftermath of the 1994 mid-term election fiasco. Reich claimed that Clinton had thrown “overboard some liberal founding stones” and he feared Obama was doing the same.
It is easy as an outsider to be critical and pretend to be pure ideologically. But Reich should know better about the realities of politics. And if Obama had listened to the staunchest Liberals in the party, and not abandoned the “liberal founding stones”, the Democrats would have been decimated in the November elections, losing control of the Senate as well.
We all may have delusions of being the brightest person in the room. The reality is that there are many intelligent people who are involved in politics, and they all have something useful and important to contribute. We can learn from one another, and should make every effort to find the best compromises because no one really can be sure that s/he has the right answers to what are always much more complex questions.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.